Capturing Conversations, Managing Knowledge
This is part of the “Capturing Conversations content programme”, which looks at how effectively senior executives today capture insights from internal and external meetings, and how the meetings space has evolved to facilitate the sharing of knowledge and new ideas.
As companies have become more dependent on intellectual capital to drive growth, knowledge management has risen in importance. In today’s fast-paced, volatile, uncertain world, not only must senior executives engage in effective dialogue for ideas and progress, they also have to think holistically about how to best integrate insights into knowledge streams amid increasingly dynamic corporate structures.
Against the backdrop of these larger trends, individual workers have to contend with a proliferation of new technologies and devices blurring the lines between professional and personal, work and play. The consumerisation of technology has put companies on the back foot as they strive to keep up with their employees’ fast-evolving digital habits while maintaining governance and security standards.
Considering these revolutionary—and often tumultuous—changes in communications technologies, collaboration norms and work habits, this report assesses how firms in Asia are adapting their methods of capturing conversations and managing knowledge. The key findings of the research are as follows:
- Face-to-face meetings are paramount, but firms are becoming more efficient at holding internal ones. Despite the advances in video-conferencing technologies, virtual contact can never completely replace the human touch, particularly for client relationships. Nonetheless, as a result of the bloated meeting schedules that senior executives now have to contend with, video-conferencing is helping soften demand for internal meetings as part of a broader drive for greater productivity.
- Consumer chat services are pervasive throughout the corporate sphere and are responsible for lightening the e-mail load. Intra-company conversations are today commonly held on Skype, WhatsApp, Google Chat and other digital channels. However, firms are still unsure about how to deal with the blurring of personal and professional space; as a result, behavioural norms and codes of conduct are still very much works-in-progress.
- Virtual collaboration is occurring most robustly in the early stages of idea generation, while traditional methods prevail later. Virtual collaboration is taking off in the brainstorming phase, where there is often a chaotic buzz associated with the marketplace of ideas. However, when an idea has been screened and then needs development and refinement, senior executives seem to retreat to the familiarity—and focus—of traditional offline collaboration.
- Senior executives are becoming more selective about external conferences, conventions and meetings as they feel “over-conferenced”. The single most important determinant for conference participation is speaker and attendee profile. Some firms are shunning giant conferences for smaller ones where they can engage in more tactical networking.
- Governance, security and excess information are the main challenges to managing ever-more “knowledge”. Senior executives like having all their devices—including smartphones, tablets and laptops—synchronised with personal and professional technologies, channels and conversations. This presents a governance and security risk for firms. Meanwhile, in an age of big data, many companies around the world face the challenge of converting the growing piles of information into genuine corporate insights or knowledge.
Almost 30 years ago, before the advent of e-mail or the mobile phone, Peter Drucker, management theorist, foresaw the evolution of the modern corporation.
“The typical business [of the future] will be knowledge-based, an organisation composed largely of specialists who direct and discipline their own performance through feedback from colleagues, customers and headquarters. For this reason, it will be what I call an information-based organisation.”
Today, nearly every country and company engages in at least some knowledge work. Mr Drucker argued that in a knowledge economy the performance of corporations—and, indeed, countries—hinges on their ability to maximise the quality and productivity of knowledge.
That, simply, is the primary objective of modern knowledge management.
Knowledge management typically has several stages. First is the creation and/or capture of knowledge; then storage; retrieval; use, sharing and maintenance; and finally the destruction of knowledge, for instance, when a particular process is no longer relevant or needs updating.
Good knowledge management enhances many corporate processes: shortening cycle times and improving decision-making processes; boosting innovative potential and strengthening employee engagement and organisational cohesiveness. In today’s globalised marketplace, where technologically savvy workers are collaborating on different mediums from a variety of locations, knowledge management is increasingly the fount of competitive advantage in many sectors.
According to Irma Becerra-Fernandez and Rajiv Sabherwal, authors of Knowledge Management: Systems and Processes, corporate knowledge can also be characterised by three types of intellectual capital:
Human capital—the knowledge within individual employees
Organisational capital—institutionalised knowledge and codified behaviours residing in manuals and processes
Social capital—the knowledge that grows from corporate relationships
Even if the likes of big data have long been around in some shape or form, unique challenges are undoubtedly associated with the modern executive’s need to manage knowledge. As firms grow bigger and expand across the world, they have a tendency to become increasingly bureaucratic and cluttered.
According to the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), organisational “complicatedness” rose by an average of 6.7% per year from the 1950s to the 2000s—partly because companies today, in response to the multiple, sometimes competing demands put on them by customers, new markets, and changing operating environments, “set themselves six times as many performance requirements as they did in 1955”.
The problem is that companies often do not respond efficiently to this complexity. Among other actions, they rejig corporate structures and fiddle with incentives in order to optimise internal human resources for external challenges. Often they end up fattening the bureaucracy.
Managers in complicated organisations contend with an obscene number of meetings and e-mails. A study by Bain & Company using VoloMetrix analytical tools revealed that executives in large corporations spend close to 300,000 hours a year just on internal meetings. This takes up close to 15% of an organisation’s collective time.
How do senior executives today prioritise conversations and meetings? How do they conduct them efficiently so as to maximise their return, in terms of insights gathering or knowledge “capture”? How do they record and share insights with their team? What sorts of new technologies, such as internal messaging and shared drives, do corporations use to collaborate on projects? How do teams balance online and offline collaboration? How have greater information flows and seamless knowledge-sharing affected decision-making processes and management demands?
This paper seeks to answer these and other questions.
For time-starved senior executives operating in today’s global economy, choosing the right conversations to have is a daily challenge. Yet even if they can identify the right conversation—be it with another individual or a team—a second challenge presents itself: making that conversation productive.
Technological developments and the democratisation of knowledge, for all their wonders, have led to one of the scourges of modern society: a deluge of information.
It is not always easy sifting through that information to tease out genuine insights. All the harder when dealing with global teams across multiple geographies—anything from cultural differences to technological hiccups can undermine a conversation’s productivity.
Executives who can identify potentially valuable conversations, conduct them efficiently to draw out insights, filter out the noise, record key takeaways and then inject them into in-house knowledge streams can improve corporate decision-making processes and thus gain a competitive advantage for their business.
These conversations—or knowledge “inputs”—can be everything from casual interactions to meetings and webinars via a multitude of channels, traditional and high-tech. External meetings have developed into a spectrum of formats, from large conventions or boardroom discussions to coffee shop conversations, enabling various channels of networking and idea-sharing. At the same time, video-conferencing technologies have grown in speed, reliability and quality; the most advanced of them beam high-definition, life-size images purporting to reproduce the feel of actual meeting rooms.
However, executives interviewed for this report are unanimous about the sanctity of face-to-face meetings. This is particularly true for client relationships. “Virtual contact can never completely replace the human touch”, says Terry Smagh, vice-president and managing director, Asia, at Qlik, a technology firm that makes business analytics and data visualisation software.
Video-conferencing is, however, reducing the need for internal face-to-face meetings. For Jeanette Chan, CFO AMEA at the InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), there is a clear cost and productivity imperative driving this, given the travel required when geographically dispersed teams meet. IHG is currently investing in “next-generation” video-conferencing technology, she says, that will drive the company further along this communications trajectory.
The company is also creating guidelines around team meetings to ensure that they are productive and efficient engagements for all involved. While there is a need to be conscious about cost-savings through more efficient ways of communicating across borders, Ms Chan recognises the importance of face-to-face interactions in building team spirit. The key is in striking the right balance between costs and meetings.
It is notable that for Ms Chan’s senior-most meetings—where intense knowledge-sharing and idea development occur—IHG has not scaled back on face-to-face meetings. She attends four AMEA management meetings a year, as well as four functional ones with IHG’s other finance heads. “It’s very important that we are aligned in the strategy going forward to advance the discussion around projects that will bring us to the next level”, she says about the need for face-to-face time.
Gathering insights: inside and out
In the pursuit of maintaining relevance, firms gather knowledge from a variety of sources, both internal and external. A key basis for the creation of meetings and conferences, for instance, lies in providing industry peers a platform to collaborate on insights and trends occurring in their field. Beyond the networking and marketing brawl, a core objective of external conferences is to converse on current challenges and share thoughts on the innovations needed for the future.
In conjunction, innovation sprouts from within the firm as well. In a hyper-connected world, everyone from executive assistants to chief executives is armed with information at their fingertips. Insights are gathered not only from industry interactions, but also from in-house research, presentations and discussions. In this sense, a vast majority of workers contribute in some way to their firm’s stock of knowledge—by gathering insights, sharing them and then allowing ideas to ferment.
External conferences: a highly selective affair
Executives interviewed for this paper believe external conferences, conventions
and meetings are important because they offer an opportunity for valuable face-to-face interaction with industry peers and potential clients. “These are good places to interact and network and get to know what other people are doing”, Ms Chan says.
However, interviewees have become increasingly selective about which ones to attend given the perceived glut of events—a sense of being “over-conferenced”, says Grace Sai, CEO of The Hub, a co-working space in Singapore that counts some 220 companies and start-ups in its community of “Hubbers”. Ms Sai, who is often asked to speak at such events, scrutinises the “intention of the conference”, paying particular attention to whether it is aligned with The Hub’s own message.
The single most important determinant for conference participation, say interviewees, is speaker and attendee profile. Ms Chan at IHG limits her own attendance to select, exclusive events. She does, however, keep abreast of ongoing trade and industry conferences, as well as functional seminars, for instance, on tax-related matters or shared services. If she deems an event pertinent enough, a deputy may attend on her behalf and feed insights back into the team’s knowledge bank.
For Mr Smagh at Qlik, networking is a key objective of any external event. However, he now sees less value in giant conferences where, he believes, name-card collection can take precedence over meaningful interaction.
Qlik has, therefore, become more tactical in its engagement in and at these events. First, the firm actively sniffs around for opportunities to sponsor specific sessions at high-level conferences, thus giving it privileged access to potential clients and partners. Second, Mr Smagh participates selectively in events that can give Qlik the broadest exposure possible; he is, for example, more willing to be a keynote speaker than a panellist at technology events.
“We did one [a keynote] in Hong Kong about four weeks ago,” says Mr Smagh. “In the next 72 hours, I had a 62% increase in my LinkedIn hits [profile views and invitations to connect]. What’s interesting is that I only actually met 30-40% of those people.”
Conversing with colleagues
For meetings, both internal and external, to be fruitful for a firm’s progress at large, the ideas generated have to be assimilated effectively into the organisation. This can prove to be a challenge in the realms of overly complicated corporate structure. Companies are addressing this pragmatically by streamlining their internal communication systems to bring greater transparency to information-sharing.
Symphony, a new chat service for the financial services industry launched with competitor Bloomberg’s terminals in its sights, is the poster child for the ongoing revolution in how workers communicate and collaborate.
Although the rich spoils on offer in the battle for financial chatter usually focus attention there, similar technologies are increasingly pervasive across corporate life.
For Charanjit Singh at Construct Digital, a digital marketing agency, a majority of his internal conversations are now on Slack, a desktop and mobile collaboration platform that mimics the snazzy, snappy, “synchronous” interface of instant messaging services like WhatsApp. Slack is an example of a software that leverages on the consumerisation of IT, whereby devices and technologies that emerge in the consumer market find their way into the office environment.
Via Slack, Mr Singh conducts multiple parallel conversations across his company—some function-specific; others product-, idea- or client-specific; and others geography-dependent. Third-party applications such as Dropbox and Google Docs plug seamlessly into Slack, making it a sort of central repository for much of the company’s activity and knowledge. With a swipe or tap, a user can forward links, share documents, make decisions and even send the odd emoticon.
There is one obvious casualty. “Our e-mail usage has gone down 90%,” Mr Singh cheerily concedes. Slack’s conversation interface alerts Mr Singh to threads where his attention is needed, while allowing him to remain an interested spectator for others. It is far more efficient, he believes, than the tedium associated with the “Reply All” e-mail culture.
Lightening the internal e-mail load frees up executives to deal with the external. According to BCG, managers receive on average some 30,000 external communications per year, up from about 1,000 in 1970.
Mr Singh is aware, though, that his firm’s high Slack adoption rate is partly due to the relatively low average age of its employees. “It has been easier for us to leapfrog older communications systems [such as e-mail],” he says.
Although Slack has recorded exponential global growth—achieving half a million daily active users by February 2015, a year after its full launch—it remains unclear if older and larger firms will quickly embrace similar collaboration tools.
At IHG, many employees are wedded to their e-mail systems because in them reside all relevant conversations and information, says Ms Chan.
Perhaps the most intriguing communications evolution is in the corporate use of WhatsApp. Interviewees agreed that WhatsApp has accelerated the sparring of ideas and insights internally, for instance, a blog link or an anecdote from a business meeting.
For Mr Smagh at Qlik, the inevitable intermixing of personal and professional relationships on WhatsApp’s dashboard necessitates a focussed, clearly defined set of interaction parameters. For him, WhatsApp derives its professional value from its judicious use, providing a means to interact quickly with his leadership teams and to convey decisions that need his urgent attention.
Mr Smagh is also a firm believer in chance office encounters: the “water-cooler moments”. To encourage these, he has strategically positioned three Nespresso machines (alongside actual water coolers) in the firm’s 110-person office. Again, this is partly a response to the over-virtualisation of intra-office communication. The sharing of insights and transfer of knowledge happens here in a less structured but potentially powerful way.
Generating ideas, developing insights
New technologies appear to be having a major impact on the very first stage of idea generation: brainstorming.
At Construct Digital, collaboration on the Slack platform has boosted the number of ideas that are cycled through corporate conversations. Employees have quickly adjusted to the rhythm of forwarding links and contributing thoughts to a variety of content channels. Here, social media displays its charm with the implementation of several hashtags, including #sharing-digital-ideas, #production and #resource-planning, as well as numerous client-specific ones.
For example, a recent post on #sharing-digital-ideas was on “Google, micro-learning & the future of education”. Along with the link, the Construct Digital employee commented:
“Micro-learning has shaped our attention span over the years. It focuses on short bursts of information that’s digestible and easy to read, which I believe is propagated by the shift from desktop to mobile. From a content perspective, micro-learning is a direction we can tap into, to engage with audience/consumers.”
The activity on these channels keeps ideas percolating among employees, with good ones bubbling up and developing offline into something more serious. Construct Digital’s internal newsletter compiles content surrounding the most popular topics—including shared posts and employee comments—thus giving them a second life right away. Meanwhile, everything is saved in the cloud, so workers can at any time revisit old conversation threads.
Digital communication is also allowing firms to brainstorm with their clients, partners and other stakeholders in a far more efficient way. The Hub’s Ms Sai spent an hour hosting a live chat—“I am Grace Sai, Co-Founder and CEO of The Hub Singapore. Ask me anything!”—on the TECHINASIA blog.
She fielded questions on topics such as team-building, fund-raising and marketing channels for start-ups. Such sessions are symbiotic, she says, because they give her a ground-level view of issues that concern potential clients and partners.
All that said, interviewees for this report generally believe that once an idea has been generated, its further development is still highly dependent on traditional communications and collaboration, such as face-to-face discussions, presentations and pitches.
In other words, virtual collaboration is taking off at the brainstorming stage, where there is often a chaotic buzz associated with the marketplace of ideas. However, when an idea has been screened and then needs development and refinement, senior executives seem to retreat to the familiarity—and focus—of traditional offline collaboration.
The challenges with managing ever-more “knowledge”
Senior executives touched on the variety of challenges associated with contemporary knowledge management, including that of security. As the consumerisation of technology has blurred the lines between personal and professional devices and technologies, says Mr Smagh, all companies need to be doing more to ensure security and governance. This is to prevent breaches of, say, confidential client data. With many executives today using WhatsApp on their corporate laptops, Mr Singh muses, what happens if they lose their laptops and somebody else accesses those saved conversations?
A separate challenge is that in the age of big data, many companies around the world face the challenge of converting the growing piles of information into genuine corporate insights or knowledge. “The company has a lot of data. We need to use the data appropriately,” summarises Ms Chan.
New technologies have certainly brought a wealth of possibilities for increasing the transparency and efficiency of knowledge transfer. However, executives agree that the importance of in-person conversations with industry colleagues within and beyond the company hold weight to harnessing the new wave of ideas. The role of meetings, conferences and discussions remain significant, but must be assisted by technology to remain relevant.
For corporations in today’s fast-changing, uncertain world, the key to managing knowledge—and thus creating sustainable competitive advantage in the knowledge economy—is being adaptable and open to any new development, technology or social evolution while maintaining standard operating procedures and ensuring governance and security.
Indeed, it seems likely that for the foreseeable future, communications and collaboration will simply be in flux. Consider that proponents of virtual reality (VR) technologies—long considered the preserve of the movie and video-gaming industries—are already looking forward to the day when VR devices will be affordable and convenient enough for everyday corporate use.
“Imagine being in a product review with people from around the globe—your operations lead is at the manufacturing plant, your marketing head is visiting an ad agency, your product lead is at the R&D Lab and your CEO is at HQ. In VR you will be able to all be together and have the product in that virtual space,” Laird Malamed, the COO at Oculus, a VR headset manufacturer, has been quoted as saying.
If inertia prevents firms from breaking free of legacy assets and processes, or if tradition inhibits individuals from embracing new social norms, they may one day find themselves running barefoot while their competitors are already flying.
 Peter Drucker. “The coming of the New Organization”, Harvard Business Review, Jan 1988.
 Irma Becerra-Fernandez, and Rajiv Sabherwal, Knowledge Management: Systems and Processes, 2nd ed (2014), 4.
 Irma Becerra-Fernandez, and Rajiv Sabherwal, Knowledge Management: Systems and Processes, 2nd ed (2014), 4.
 “Smart Rules: Six Ways to Get People to Solve Problems Without You”, Boston Consulting Group, Oct 17 2011.
 Michael C. Mankins, Chris Brahm, and Gregory Caimi, “Meetings: Your Scarcest Resource”, Harvard Business Review, May 2014.
 “Decluttering the company,” The Economist, Aug 2, 2014.
 “Is virtual reality finally ready for business use?” CIO, Sep 16, 2015.